London's Best Paddling Pools + Water Fountains
By Jodi Bartle
In this funny London city, where it occasionally turns deliciously warm - even, dare I say, hot - you have to figure out what kind of stance you’ll take on cooling down.
As a New Zealander, I often think that they only regrettable thing about living here is the lack of a beach up the road. Sometimes, all you want to do is strip down and get wet.
But with small people in tow, this can feel all too complicated - what with swim suits, swimming nappies, sunblock, towels, goggles and inflatable vests. Perhaps the world is split between those who meticulously plan for whole days out immersing their kids in lidos and indoor swimming pools and those who will seize any slight water-related opportunity like a fountain or a paddling pool and get stuck in, regardless of the bathing suit to-person-ratio.
My kids and I are definitely of the latter persuasion; there’s a time for well-planned-out swimming excursions and there’s a time for impromptu messing about in a thin wet stream, stripped down to a pair of pants and a very tolerant attitude to wetness.
Luckily, London offers a very fine selection of options for such liquid larks, and here are a few:
Southbank Fountains “Appearing Rooms” - open May to September
These are a set of quite tricksy little fountains, designed to be a bit arty and conceptual (fitting, seeing as they operate right outside the revamped Hayward Gallery) and that act a little like walls when they are fully firing, only to disappear just as unpredictably. Perfect for running in and out of and good for those older kids who like an algorithmic challenge - don’t tell them, but they’ll get wet no matter how much they think you can outsmart the jets.
The best thing about the Southbank location is the Southbank itself - operating a wonderful food market every weekend and bank holiday, with all the family-friendly chains at the riverside ground level, with toilets, a sandpit in summer, skateboard park and good coffee at Beany Green, everyone will be kept happy. Wet, yes, but happy.
Diana Memorial Fountains - open 10am to 8pm
Located in Hyde Park on the banks of the Serpentine, this once-controversial behemoth opened in 2004. Made from 545 Cornish granite stones, it was designed ‘to express Diana’s spirit and love of children’. There were some early slippage problems and for a time the guards were a bit cranky about anyone jumping in, but they’ve since relaxed. Bring the kids, a few snacks, find a spot and be prepared to spend a long afternoon in amongst the cheerful crowds.
Edmond J Safra Fountain Court, Somerset House - open until 11pm
If you find yourself with boisterous kids after insisting on an exhibition at the excellent Courtauld Gallery, simply pop outside and strip off. The courtyard, surrounded by 19th century buildings, contains a lively fountain featuring 55 jets, a terraced cafe and a glorious restaurant if you are feeling flash.
There’s been a riot of regeneration in Paddington over the last few years, turning nondescript and forgotten urban spaces into buzzing canalside social sites. The Merchant Square spiralling fountains are designed to get your kids properly wet and are surrounded by grassy green spaces perfect for drying out on later. There are screens, deckchairs, two lifting bridges, floating gardens, pingpong tables, restaurants, good coffee, and currently, a roosting goose.
A mix of families, cool fashion students and commuters populate the courtyard of the Central Saint Martins former warehouse space, with the kid’s fountain located alongside lovely restaurants and places to grab a proper coffee, while over the road there are steps leading down to the canal, perfect for eating a packed lunch.
For even more fun, you can download the Granary Squirt app, where from 4pm-5pm, you and up to eight of your assembled crew can control the fountains from your phone. Later, if your kids/phone haven’t run out of batteries and you are still there, the fountains get lit up; like Christmas, only not.
A favourite of everyone, from visiting celebs who take their kids there (I’ve seen Cate Blanchett, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, Hugh Grant, Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany, Eva Herzigova and Jade Parfitt), those who trek there from out of London, and the people who live close enough for it to be the default afternoon lazy choice, the locally known Pirate Park has all important water play features, as well as everything else.
Near the massive wooden pirate ship in the middle of the sandpit is a swampy, crocodile-y area which collects all the water coming from a few fountains. It’s not a pool, more a puddle, but when enough kids start bringing buckets and empty coffee cups filled with water and start filling up the troughs, it gets wet, as do they. There’s a cafe to the side that does a perfectly serviceable pizza, and Queensway has a variety of places to eat as well as a Pret and a Sainsbury’s for a cheaper option.
This large recreational space with tennis courts, gardens and fields has an enclosed water play area filled with all sorts of funnels, buckets, hoses and sprinklers for kids to get drenched in. It is free, with changing rooms and a guard, and outside it has a proper playground, sandpit and toddler area. Walking distance from Portobello Road, afterwards you can head there for a street stall lunch (we love the Vietnamese bahn mi). Open 11am-6:00pm from April to September.
The V&A is brilliant for kids for all sorts of reasons - and you can add ‘cooling off in the bathing pool’ to the list. When you’ve finished ransacking the place on one of the V&A’s informative-but-fun kid’s treasure hunts or managed to persuade your slightly older ones to take a tour with you around the galleries with the guides, step outside, reward everyone with an ice cream, toss your shoes and have a proper paddle. The steps lead in, so smaller kids can take it gradually.
It’s a sophisticated crowd; prime the kids that the V&A isn’t a place for full-on water wars (we’ve had a few tuts over the years) but once the sun is shining and the splashing is reasonably contained, it’s a perfect inner city London pond featuring more art and design than any of us deserve.